Striking Shades

“This artist used to have a lot of trouble with repetition,” Monika Neuland-Kimrey explained to me, as we looked at four variations on a single portrait of 80s pop star Boy George. All four iterations were done in the same bright, thick blocks of color, duplications that once confused Monika and the other staff who worked with Derrick Collins, the artist behind the piece. “He’d write his birthday on all of his paintings, and we’d keep asking him–Derrick, why not paint something else? But eventually we turned that repetition into these kinds of studies of an image, and now when he’s in the studio he and this other woman will check in on each other’s pieces and ask: is this good repetition or bad repetition?”

Neuland-Kimrey, a businesslike, fashionably dressed blonde of about 30, is the artistic director for the Envision Arts Studio, a program that gives artists with developmental disabilities both a place to develop their craft and a forum for them to exhibit and sell their work. The paintings here, along with ceramics, knitted goods, and dolls, made up a weekend exhibit called “The New Maximum.” The show was hosted by the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport–a small, single-room exhibition space with clean white walls and tables. Multi-colored glass panel windows cast softly-colored yellow, green, and purple light on the interior. In contrast to the Sphere’s serenity, the pieces on display burst with energy: paintings of voluptuous, thickly colored faces and figures; long, spindly-armed dolls with wild string hair and big button eyes; quilts with African prints of gazelles and herders alongside pink stripes and bright yellow plaid.

As we moved through the exhibit, Neuland-Kimrey told me more about Envision. “We really want it to be a vocational program for our clients,” Monika explained. The studio stipulates that 60 percent of the revenue from their art sales go directly to the artist, while the other 40 percent must be reinvested in paints, canvasses, and materials for additional work with the studio. “We have people who have struggled to make a dime before in their lives making several hundred dollars a year.”

We next happened upon a table stacked high with quilts of every possible hue. It’s overwhelming, and Neuland-Kimrey attempted to explain the Technicolor flamboyance of the piece: “The artists here do gravitate towards those saturated colors, and since there’s so much collaboration the art tends to take on that expressive, ecstatic aesthetic. The tendency here was to make something colorful–and then add five more layers of color.” Another woman at the exhibit joined us at the table and noticed that a bright polka-dotted turquoise fabric she had donated has been sewn into one of the quilts. “That’s great!” she exclaimed. “It was so lame and 80s by itself, but it looks really good here.”

The scope of Envision unlimited’s goodwill extends beyond the exhibit–it also offers a broad range of opportunities for those in need. These include co-habitative residential opportunities for adults with developmental disorders, temporary foster care for children and their siblings, activities for seniors, and an industrial-scale weaving operation that provides pillows to customers such as Amtrak and United Airlines. The arts studio is part of the Day Employment program, which offers weavers and artists with developmental disabilities an opportunity to make a living from their work.

“The program allows the community to view our clients as very capable people,” says program coordinator Susan Gardner. “People who are usually seen as subservient and taking from the community get the chance to give back.”

The studio launched in 2000 with a grant from the Illinois Art Council as an annual three-to-four month program. Since then, it has grown into a full-time art studio, with more than 30 artists in residence and over 200 client artists. Although external funding has since dried up, sales at their events and donations have the program going strong, with an ever-increasing number of exhibitions and the possibility of a permanent sales venue in the Chicago Cultural Center gift shop.

Toward the end of my visit, Jonathon Taylor, one of the artists who had work on display, arrived with his mother to take a look at his art. He is new to the program, and only had two pieces on display. One of them, a glossy brown ceramic sculpture that resembles a seashell, had already been sold–his first sale since beginning to work with the program. Taylor, who is young and cheery, smiled proudly as the staffers congratulated him on his sale. Before leaving, Taylor posed for a photo with his piece, in the hope that it was just one of many more successful projects to come.